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Letitia Christian Tyler, first wife of President John Tyler, served as First Lady of the United States from 1841 until her death at 51. She was the youngest First Lady to pass away and one of only three to have passed away in the White House.
Letitia Tyler had been confined to an invalid’s chair for two years when her husband unexpectedly became President. Nobody had thought of that possibility when he took his oath of office as Vice President on March 4, 1841; indeed, he had planned to fill his undemanding duties from his home in Williamsburg where his wife was most comfortable, her Bible, prayer book, and knitting at her side.
Born on a Tidewater Virginia plantation in the 18th century, Letitia was spiritually akin to Martha Washington and Martha Jefferson. Formal education was no part of this pattern of life, but Letitia learned all the skills of managing a plantation, rearing a family, and presiding over a home that would be John Tyler’s refuge during an active political life. They were married on March 29, 1813–his twenty-third birthday. Thereafter, whether he served in Congress or as Governor of Virginia, she attended to domestic duties. Only once did she join him for the winter social season in Washington. Of the eight children she bore, seven survived; but after 1839 she was a cripple, though “still beautiful now in her declining years.”
So her admiring new daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper Tyler, described her–“the most entirely unselfish person you can imagine…Notwithstanding her very delicate health, mother attends to and regulates all the household affairs and all so quietly that you can’t tell when she does it.”
In a second-floor room at the White House, Letitia Tyler kept her quiet but pivotal role in family activities. She did not attempt to take part in the social affairs of the administration. Her married daughters had their own homes; the others were too young for the full responsibility of official entertaining; Priscilla at age 24 assumed the position of White House hostess, met its demands with spirit and success, and enjoyed it.
Daughter of a well-known tragedian, Priscilla Cooper had gone on the stage herself at 17. Playing Desdemona to her father’s Othello in Richmond, she won the instant interest of Robert Tyler, whom she married in 1839. Intelligent and beautiful, with dark brown hair, she charmed the President’s guests–from visiting celebrities like Charles Dickens to enthusiastic countrymen. Once she noted ruefully: “such hearty shakes as they gave my poor little hand too!” She enjoyed the expert advice of Dolley Madison, and the companionship of her young sister-in-law Elizabeth until she married William N. Waller in 1842.
For this wedding Letitia made her only appearance at a White House social function. “Lizzie looked surpassingly lovely,” said Priscilla, and “our dear mother” was “far more attractive to me…than any other lady in the room,” greeting her guests “in her sweet, gentle, self-possessed manner.”
The first President’s wife to die in the White House, Letitia Tyler ended her days peacefully on September 10, 1842, holding a damask rose in her hand. She was taken to Virginia for burial at the plantation of her birth, deeply mourned by her family. “She had everything about her,” said Priscilla, “to awaken love…”
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Letitia Christian Tyler’s spouse, John Tyler.